For centuries on end, people with physical disabilities have been on the receiving end of the community chest. They have generally been aided—sometimes grudgingly, out of necessity, and sometimes generously, out of charity—but nevertheless this aid has been given to those who were primarily a burden on the community. Is it not time now, at the outset of the 21st century, for this perspective to change and for physically challenged people to become productive members of the community, making a contribution for its collective benefit, and shouldn’t they be entitled to rights rather than aid?
Under the motto “From a charitable perspective to a rights perspective”, the Middle East Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN-ME), which is affiliated to the World Council of Churches (WCC), held its second three-day conference last month in Cairo. Samuel Kabue, the Kenyan secretary-general of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN), who is himself visually impaired attended this year’s conference. Rola Halabi and Fadi Halabi, the Middle East network coordinators who are both from Lebanon and both have motion disabilities, also took part, as well as people with various disabilities who either attended in the audience or took an active part in the lectures. Coptic Church representatives were Anba Moussa, Bishop of the youth; Father Anastasi al-Samueli, who holds the responsibility of services to the disabled in the Coptic Orthodox Church; and Anba Pimen, Bishop of Negada, as well as a number of priests. Dr Mushira Khattab, Minister of Family and Population, was represented by Dr Sherine Khalil.
Coptic in Braille
In his opening speech Anba Moussa expressed his conviction that disabled people were merely individuals with special abilities. He explained that when a few years ago the disabled started to take part in the yearly keraza youth festival, he was surprised by the high scores they achieved. Anba Moussa added that some modifications had been made to the festival programmes since disabled people joined, and new tools were employed to suit their particular needs. Many of the modifications were made by the disabled themselves, and one visually impaired member designed a technique to print the Coptic language in Braille.
‘Everyone’s Church for all’. According to Mr Kabue, this is the basis of EDAN. “EDAN was founded in 1998 with the objective of effectively blending people with special needs with their churches, in order for them to play a positive and effective part,” he explained. “Churches should be fit with ramps and facilities for those who find moving about difficult. Braille publications should be widely available, and more people should learn sign language. Congregations should be informed about dealing with the disabled, especially those with mental disabilities.”
Changing age-old concepts
Mr Kabue said the integration process required a good deal of effort on the part of those with special needs as well as the people who dealt with them, since it entailed changing age old concepts and cultures.
EDAN was founded at the hand of the disabled in various countries, Mr Kabue said. Among EDAN’s African activities, he explained, were a number of development projects, an ecumenical programme which was implemented in Kenya, and a syllabus related to disability that was added to the theological seminaries in Kenya and Ghana.
Rola Halabi confirmed that in order to assert the rights and development concept, individuals with special needs must collaborate with each other and actively take part in their communities and their churches, which are their smaller communities.
In pity or wonder
Dr Khalil put it very aptly when she said that disabled persons are usually referred to in one of two terms, either in pity because of their disability, or in wonder at the exceptional abilities of some. Both perspectives, she said, were extreme; disabled persons were as normal as anybody else.
Dr Khalil divulged that, through her work in the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, she discovered that in order to alter the community’s perspective to the disabled from a charitable to a rights perspective it was necessary first to learn to accept the other, and hence those with special needs.
For his part, Fr Anastasi said that service work for the disabled started 26 years ago when they had no presence in Church and were surrounded only by sympathetic gazes. But today, he said, after having worked with them, discovering and developing their talents and abilities while giving them the chance to express themselves, the Church service work has gained a number of leaders and volunteer workers from among those with special needs.
In this context, Dr Abdel-Hamid Kabesh, a physiotherapist working in the field of human rights, advocated that it is the disabled themselves who ought to rally and fight for their rights. He explained that various NGOs help the disabled but, without active participation of the disabled themselves in decision making their rights were lost. He also drew attention to the fact that a great number of laws that grant the disabled many rights are not put into effect, in addition to many other rights for which there is as yet no law. Dr Kabesh suggested that NGOs working with the disabled should hold training courses and teach how to insist on rights and how to put laws that already exist into effect.
Dr Mufid Halim, head of one of the NGOs working in the field, said it was very important to teach those with special needs how to define a problem, understand its dimensions, think of possible solutions and formulate it into a case that they could take to the relevant authorities. He added that they should also be able to decide which relevant authority to address and when would be the best time to present the case.
The projects and activities of the NGOs working in development and advocating the rights of those with special needs were reviewed during the conference. The Upper Egypt Association was one example of these NGOs, as was the Swiss Terre des Hommes (TDH), which has been working in Egypt since 1979, and in Assiut in particular since the early 1980s with cases of cerebral paralysis. TDH, which is now working with cases of different disabilities, aims at increasing public awareness of disability; rehabilitating the disabled and blending them with the community; rehabilitating their families; ameliorating their financial status and putting an end to illiteracy amongst them.
Not just for winners
Dr Ashraf Marei, a professor of physical education in Helwan University’s faculty of education and head of the NAS association, who has a physical disability himself, pointed out that many disabled people excelled in sports and even surpassed those who were able-bodied. Unfortunately, however, according to Dr Marei, the media only cared to highlight such cases when they won championships. The disabled needed places to be able to play sports, he said. “Sports is a right; its aim is not just to win championships,” he said. NAS is an Egyptian organisation that offers consultations and training courses to those with learning difficulties, and also fights for rights for the disabled. It also organises workshops and camps aiming at mingling and promoting public awareness of the young people.
Some documentaries were shown during the conference about some of the NGOs’ activities and about examples of those with special needs going about their life normally.
The spiritual aspect had its share in the conference. The words were very encouraging and inspiring, especially to rouse people’s fervour to work and claim their rights. Anba Pimen stressed that God required a person to be gentle but not naïve.